University of Maine Cooperative Extension 4-H and ME EPSCoR utilize youth development to strengthen the future of Maine’s aquaculture workforce

4-H is one of the most iconic youth development programs in the nation and is most recognizable for its agriculture programs. Most people recognize 4-H from seeing youth present at local fairs. Now, 4-H is taking their youth development programming into the rapidly growing Maine aquaculture sector.

4-H has a rich history of programs dedicated to the advancement of workforce expansion. According to the UMaine Cooperative Extension: 4-H website, the organization reaches nearly 30,000 youth in Maine with a focus on building life skills needed to empower young people to reach their full potential..

Maine EPSCoR formed a natural partnership with 4-H, and together produced a number of youth engagement programs and activities to promote a strong STEM workforce. Among these projects are multiple 4-H STEM toolkits developed in support of the SEANET Track 1 Grant. 4-H STEM Toolkits provide an experiential learning opportunity for youth in Maine by providing materials needed to successfully complete science-based activities.  Each toolkit contains the curricula and materials for multiple experiential learning STEM activities. The toolkits were developed through this partnership with the EPSCoR Education and Outreach office with a focus on providing educators across the state with tools to teach STEM activities — specifically aquaculture related lessons.

4-H Science Professional at the University of Maine’s 4-H location, Laura Wilson, has been a central component of the relationship between Maine EPSCoR and 4-H, as well as the dissemination of the toolkits across Maine.

“[The toolkits] are easy for anybody with no background in aquaculture to take and facilitate with kids — and the activities are fun,” said Wilson. “So it’s giving kids across the state a really easy way to learn about this research and it’s really approachable so that if teachers or club leaders have no experience in marine science they can still pick up one of these toolkits and do some related activities with kids that are going to be successful.” 

The toolkits for kindergarten through grade five have previously been completed, and toolkits for grades six through high school are close to completion. Each toolkit is equipped with curriculum packets and supplies that match to the Next Generation Science Standards. 

Also a core member of the development for this new curriculum is 4-H Youth Development Professional in Hancock County, Carla Scocchi. Scocchi began her work with 4-H as a graduate assistant writing curricula for kindergarten through second grade and third through fifth-grade kits; the latter focused on seaweed education.

One of the toolkits developed through the partnership between Maine EPSCoR and the University of Maine Cooperative Extension 4-H.

“Aquaculture is not just in Maine, but globally one of the ways we’re going to get protein to all the people we need to feed in the world and Maine is sort of on the leading edge of that,” said Scocchi. “We have to involve youth in that, we have to educate youth in that, otherwise we are not going to be able to fill those jobs that that industry is going to require later on.”

One of the ways in which Maine EPSCoR and 4-H are putting Maine’s youth on the path to a career in aquaculture is through internship programs. Last year, the Education and Outreach office at Maine EPSCoR and 4-H piloted a program with the Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research (CCAR) and the Center for Community Inclusion and Disabilities Studies (CCIDS) focused on teaching aquaponics to kids with disabilities. 

“We introduced them to aquaponics as a way to talk about aquaculture, but since we were at CCAR, we were also talking about the kinds of jobs that they could get in the aquaculture industry which is growing especially in Hancock County,” said Scoochi. 

This summer, 4-H is once again partnering with CCAR, this time to deliver an aquaculture internship program during which youth are raising yellowtail kingfish while learning about sustainable aquaculture and the systems that support it. The project, designed to bolster the future of the aquaculture workforce, will culminate in a presentation where the interns will teach the public at the Blue Hill Fair in Blue Hill, Maine, what they learned about aquaculture at the end of the summer. 

This internship program’s main focus is providing youth with tangible skills they can market in the workplace. These skills are based on a 4-H framework — the Life Skills Wheel — broken up by the 4 “H’s” that make up 4-H: heart, hands, head, and health. These four categories are further broken up into valuable abilities both in and out of the workplace: relating, caring, giving, working, being, living, thinking, and managing. Under each of these subsections are a variety of skills including self-motivation, problem-solving, and communication. 

Beyond these basic life skills, 4-H interns learn industry-specific proficiency in areas such as water quality assessments, recirculating aquaculture system engineering, and general fish care. This knowledge will be directly marketable for those looking to enter the aquaculture workforce after their education. 

“We provide a safe space for students to be challenged and possibly fail but then feel success,” said Scocchi. “You need all of those things in order to feel like that true success … it’s experiential so they get it, we stick with them, they have a mentor, [and] I think the whole package of 4-H allows youth to be challenged in the right way that allows them to succeed.”

The success of young people in STEM is a goal that directly overlaps with the 4-H STEM Ambassadors program. The ambassadors are trained University of Maine students expressing an interest in working with youth who are then paired with students across the state to facilitate hands-on science, technology, engineering, and math activities.

“There’s some magic that happens when you put those age groups together,” said Wilson. “Because sometimes these kids in the community don’t have a lot of connections with people who are in higher education and this gives them a link, it gives them that personal connection.”

All of these programs are based in sparks of interest demonstrated by 4-H youth, no matter the specific field. If a 4-H member has a particular interest from animal science to engineering aquaculture systems, 4-H will connect them to the necessary resources.

“Some of the values I see in 4-H and 4-H’s connection to the University of Maine in workforce development is being able to provide opportunities for youth to really see how far they can go in this world,” says Wilson. “We really have something for everybody and we’re able to capitalize on youths’ interests to get them engaged, [and] once they’re engaged, we can help them find a pathway to where they want to go.”